Do you watch Repair Shop? I love it. Each piece has a wonderful story behind it and it is magically repaired by incredibly skilled craftsmen. They are the same tribe as our suppliers in Japan and I do hope the program inspires young people in this country to form the next generation of Repair Shop.
We work with a polisher in an antique restoring workshop for our wooden panel collections. They are our third polisher since we started staining services in 2014. It is a high turnover; one went back to Poland while the other one retired and had no one to take over.
Our Fine Ornamental Woodwork Panel collection is beautiful as is. However, I have to admit there are lots of demands to have them stained. It is easier to incorporate into interiors when wood finishes can match. However, wood is not stained or painted in traditional Japanese houses. We enjoy the aroma of the wood when it is new and let it age. Cypress is normally used in Japanese bathrooms and it is divine when steamy air releases the therapeutic aroma. Of course, it loses its scent over the years, but the amazing thing about untreated wood is that it can be revived. I remember the aroma from when a four-room detached house, a part of my ancestry home was washed. It looked brand new after the wash, though it was over two hundred years old. The woods smelled sweet and looked several shades lighter. It was first wet part by part by a brush. I now know caustic soda was then applied and dirt was brushed off followed by a phosphate buffer to neutralise. It was rinsed again by a brush and wiped up with a damp cloth. It is all done by hand, square foot by square foot. Please click here to see how they do it.
So many countries, so many customs. Our supplier of the wooden panels doesn’t provide staining services, so I had to find the service in the UK. I realised I had to beg them to supply some off cuts of samples for staining trials; I cannot afford to invest thousands of pounds for samples which might be completely ruined and wasted. Off-cut pieces are scarce because everything is made to order with extremely careful planning, so as not to waste any materials. There are reasons this, for retail prices per square metre are between £710 and £1,850. Not only it is labour intensive to create each panel by skilled craftsmen, but also only a premium part of timbers, which is like a fillet of beef, can be used. Wooden strips cannot have any knots, twists or abnormalities which will affect the integration of the complicated patterns.
The supplier tried hard to save some off-cut samples for me, so I had to use precious samples wisely. First port of call was bespoke furniture makers. I tried about a dozen and all of them politely declined looking at the intricate patterns. I might have scared them off by telling them how much these wooden panels were worth, but none of them even tried. Whenever I need advice, I always turn to my friend Cheryl Knowles who knows absolutely everything about the industry and runs the House Directory; she suggested to try BAFRA, The British Antique Furniture Restorers’ Association. She is always right.
I spoke to half a dozen polishers who were registered with BAFRA and geographically close, before then choosing four. It was a pressing issue to achieve dark walnut finish for Princess Yachts. It was very interesting to see completely different finishes from them despite the same brief. Some were keen on the job while the others were not interested. In the end, W Thomas Restoration was chosen for the job. I was requested to produce a painted finish of “weathered grey”, which was an absolute disaster. Then, we moved onto a rich and dark walnut stain. The polisher added a slight sheen by finishing it off with soft bee’s wax, which was lovely and soft. It was a creative part of the polisher and makes a tremendous difference.
I always enjoy a trip to see W Thomas Restoration because the workshop is full of surprises. Last time I was there, a highly ornate chair was being repaired. It was a Queen’s chair from Westminster Palace (formally, Robing Room Chair of State), a museum piece! In the next room, a bench from Strawberry Hill House was being reproduced for ongoing restorations of interiors. I always appreciate the privilege which comes with my work. I asked, “do you watch Repair Shop?” The answer was, “ I sometimes do, but I cannot enjoy it as much, as I think about how much repairs could cost.”